Social attraction as a conservation measure

When selecting a breeding site, birds are influenced not only by habitat quality, but also by social cues such as the presence or density of conspecifics. An applied research project by the Swiss Ornithological Institute investigates whether this mechanism can be leveraged to influence the settlement behaviour of certain bird species and whether it can be used as an instrument for species conservation.

Aims

The protection, improvement, restoration and creation of high-quality habitat are priority measures in nature conservation. Because of the intensive farming practices prevalent today, such habitats are often small and isolated from each other, making it difficult for animals and plants to colonise (or recolonise) them.

One method to facilitate (re-)colonisation has already been successfully implemented: song playback is used at specific times in suitable but unoccupied areas to simulate the presence of a certain species and thus to encourage birds to settle in that area (“social attraction”).

This project tests the method of social attraction in threatened bird species. The results can be used to develop new measures for the conservation of these threatened species. At the same time, the findings will allow us to gain new insights into the settlement behaviour of birds and give us a detailed picture of the small-scale patterns of this behaviour, both temporal and spatial. Such knowledge is a necessary foundation for improving conservation measures and protecting threatened bird species in the future.

Approach

Several subprojects (duration 1–2 years) have been designed to test the method of social attraction on various threatened bird species.

1. Whinchat

In the context of Simon Kofler’s Master thesis, an experimental test was carried out in 2018 to investigate whether breeding-site selection of Whinchats could be influenced by conspecific playback, and whether this mechanism can be used for species conservation. The subproject was conducted in the Lower Engadine on 39 meadows with playback devices and 40 control plots without playback.

2. Eurasian Wryneck

In 2019, the primary focus is on the Eurasian Wryneck, in the scope of a conservation project coordinated by the Swiss Ornithological Institute and BirdLife Switzerland and carried out in the cantons of Bern, Solothurn and Aargau. The method of social attraction will be tested on 30 plots in the project areas. At the same time, we will study the availability of ants on these plots, as it represents a key habitat factor for the Wryneck.

Significance

1. Whinchat

The Whinchat needs habitats with large meadows that are not mown until after the Whinchat’s breeding season. However, changes in grassland management that would benefit the Whinchat run contrary to the general trend towards greater intensification in mountain areas. Additional conservation measures, such as the technique of social attraction, are therefore required. Otherwise it is unlikely that the Whinchat’s negative population trend can be stopped.

2. Eurasian Wryneck

In an effort to ensure the long-term conservation of the Wryneck in Switzerland, a species recovery project is in place that connects all areas currently supporting Wryneck populations. The method of social attraction can be used to support and enhance these efforts.

Results

1. Whinchat

The 2018 results show that breeding-site selection of Whinchats cannot be influenced by song playback. This method is therefore not a valid instrument for conservation. The probability of settlement depended primarily on the proximity to one of the four core populations in the Lower Engadine, each supporting more than 35 Whinchat territories and therefore offering good chances for breeding success. Most Whinchats settle at a distance of less than 2 km to these populations. Intensively managed meadows and those managed at low intensity were occupied with similar frequency, while agriculturally improved (sown) grasslands were avoided. Therefore, conservation measures for the Whinchat must focus even more strongly on the protection of the remaining core populations and on enhancing habitat quality in nearby meadows.

Project management

Matthias Vögeli
Martin Grüebler
Reto Spaar
Michael Lanz

Partners

Local ornithologists
Federal Office for the Environment FOEN
BirdLife Switzerland

Publications